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Originally published May 22, 2013 at 9:19 AM | Page modified May 23, 2013 at 8:08 AM

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Conner sees Boeing as top dog in widebody market

At Boeing’s annual investor conference, Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner predicted that the 787 and 777X will dominate the widebody jet market against competition from Airbus.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner declared Wednesday that the 787 has “turned the corner,” with the fix for its recent battery problem all but completely implemented and production on track to rise to 10 jets a month by year end.

At Boeing’s annual investor conference, Conner confidently predicted that the 787 and the forthcoming 777X will dominate the widebody jet market against competition from Airbus.

“We’re set to take off here in the next couple of years,” he said.

Conner indicated that both the proposed 777X and 787-10 are close to official launch.

“Momentum on the development programs continues to intensify,” he told the audience of Wall Street analysts at the conference. “We are in a lot more detailed discussions than you guys realize with our customers.”

Conner displayed a product line chart that for the first time publicly confirmed the seating capacity of the proposed 777-8X and 777-9X variants. While the 350-seat 777 -8X will go head -to-head with Airbus’s much-touted A350-1000, the 777-9X — carrying more than 400 passengers — “will be kind of sitting there by itself” with no competitive offering from Airbus, he said.

It is widely expected that Boeing will launch the 787-10 — the final and largest member of the Dreamliner jet family — at the Paris Air Show next month and the 777X later in the year.

Conner said the 787-10 likely would have been launched already if not for the three-month grounding of the fleet due to the battery overheating incidents in January.

But he suggested that embarrassing interlude, while “a significant challenge,” is almost over.

“Our team responded in a way that was really phenomenal,” Conner said.

He said retrofitting the new battery systems to the worldwide fleet of 50 jets “is over 90 percent done and we should be completed by next week.”

He said airlines will finally resume their planned 787 scheduled services early next month and Boeing is sticking to its plan to deliver more than 60 Dreamliners by year end.

Speaking at a resort on Kiawah Island, outside Charleston, S.C., Conner said the two 787 fuselage fabrication plants in North Charleston are “starting to really hum,” rolling out mid-body and aft-body Dreamliner sections for the final assembly lines in Washington and South Carolina at the new 7 per month rate.

Earlier this month, the first Dreamliner rolled off the assembly line in Everett at that new production rate, putting in sight the goal of 10 per month by year end.

“The 787 is moving in the right direction,” Conner said. “We’ve had some pretty tough years. We have turned the corner.”

To go beyond 10 a month, the company and its suppliers would all have to make a capital investment in new plant and equipment, said Conner. Boeing is studying that option, but won’t make any decision until it achieves the 10 per month rate, he said.

On 777X, Conner said he’s confident the 777-8X will compete well with the A350-1000.

He said the -8X will fly further with 20 percent better fuel economy and 15 percent better per-seat operating costs than the current star of Boeing’s widebody line-up, the 777-300ER.

Airbus touts an even bigger efficiency jump for its equivalent sized A350-1000, saying it’s going to be 25 percent more fuel efficient than the 777-300ER.

But Conner disputed that, saying that the 777-8X “operating costs are at least on a par with what we think (Airbus) can do.”

Conner said the larger -9X variant, the one without an Airbus rival, will debut first.

Earlier in the morning, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney had emphasized Boeing’s advantage with that bigger widebody.

He said that while Boeing is able to develop the 777-9X as a derivative of an existing model, Airbus has no airframe that size — except for the totally uneconomical, four-engined A340 — and so would have to develop an all-new airplane to compete.

“It’ll take another 5, 6 or 7 years before they can respond to this airplane,” said McNerney. “We’re way ahead of them and it’s going to be fun.”

In the question and answer session, Conner offered an unusual glimpse of how political fixing can influence the commercial airliner business.

He cited a couple of previously undisclosed factors that in March helped Airbus win a massive 234-jet narrowbody order from Lion Air of Indonesia, previously an all-Boeing customer.

Conner said that while the U.S. Federal Aviation Adminstration had balked at giving an operating ticket to Lion Air for a new jet maintenance facility, “it looks like they are going to get a ticket from Europe.”

In addition, he said, a ban on Lion Air flying its jets into European airports, imposed because of a poor safety record for Indonesian aviation generally, has been lifted.

Despite that Airbus win, Conner said the 737 MAX will eventually regain market share in the smaller narrowbody jet market against the A320neo jet family.

Clearly though, Boeing foresees no parity in the widebody jet market, only dominance.

“We’ve got them boxed in on the A350 at the top (with 777X) and we’ve got them boxed in at the bottom with 787,” Conner said.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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